Duck and Cover

Marilyn Braun sitting in barren fallout shelter

Ken Hinson

women marching and holding posters

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 6, "Waging Peace." Find more from that issue here.

Since the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, nuclear holocaust has come to be known as "unthinkable." But in fact, a number of people in government spend a great deal of time and money planning for the "unthinkable," and they claim to have a plan for our survival. Foremost among these planners are those who work for the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Their goal is to make the unthinkable thinkable, and by promulgating the idea that there is life after nuclear war, they may be bringing that war closer.


FEMA evaluated the effects of a nuclear attack on the United States and came up with a plan. That plan includes the difficult — the evacuation of people from ''risk '' areas to "host" areas; the absurd — emergency change of address cards from the post office to keep your mail coming; and the predictable — a shelter in a hollowed-out mountain, Mt. Weather, near Washington, DC, for the protection of "indispensable" government officials.

The plan will cost $4.2 billion by 1989. The money will be spent to protect industry and the general population so there will be jobs after the holocaust and plenty of people to work. An estimated 50 million immediate dead will be bulldozed or shoveled into mass graves, but the rest of America will shake the protective dirt off the doors covering their three-foot-deep holes in the ground and get back to business as usual.

The FEMA master plan includes Crisis Relocation Planning (CRP) for over 3,000 areas. So far, fewer than 400 plans have been approved. Led by Cambridge, Massachusetts, some cities and counties have rejected CPR plans as deceptive and unworkable and are instead emphasizing educating the citizens of their areas on the consequences and effects of nuclear war. Among these are San Francisco, Sacramento and Marin County, California; New York City; Houston, Texas; and Greensboro, North Carolina.

When Marilyn Braun came to head the emergency management program in Greensboro and surrounding Guilford County, North Carolina, four years ago, she also began to think seriously about the "unthinkable." Her thinking was different. She realized the deception, confusion and wastefulness of the current civil defense program. Immediately she set out to uncover the truth and to tell that truth — something which all but a small handful of her peers in civil defense still seem reluctant to do.

She charges that the local civil defense program is unable to offer protection to the people. The people of Greensboro have reacted not with anger but instead quite positively. They want to know the truth, and Marilyn Braun wants to tell it.

In April, 1982, Marilyn Braun testified before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Environment, Energy and Natural Resources. "With respect to nuclear war, my assistant Ed Deaton and I have worked for three-and-one-half years to study all material that we have on file since 1961. We attended federal-government-sponsored courses and state-sponsored training on the subject of nuclear war. After one year of study, drawing upon FEMA documents, we began to question the objectivity of the resource material provided to us to plan. We sought, and located, some responsible and balanced information from other departments within our state and federal government as well as the private scientific community and public-interest groups."

She discovered that her office had been paying $1,200 a year in storage fees for outdated medical supplies and tons of food supplies that were unfit for human consumption. Records show that federal and local officials had been aware of the situation since 1976.

She discovered that local architects and engineers had been taught to identify fallout shelter spaces. She discovered that the spaces were identified but never qualified by specific improvements to actually become fallout shelters. Instead, signs were simply placed on them worded "Fallout Shelter" to identify them. She began working on removing these buildings from the national list of fallout shelter spaces.

She discovered that the local crisis relocation plan was no plan at all and says, "All we would truly have to defend the citizens of Greensboro and Guilford County against a nuclear missile would be paper."



After a war of any kind, there will be survivors. I don't know who they would be. I don't know how to plan for them. Nobody does.

Many people think that the Emergency Management Office is a mandated function — required by law — which it is not. My predecessors had given local government the understanding that all things were proceeding on course and that all emergency evacuation plans that should be in place were completed. I came to this office mainly because I was interested in working on energy-related emergencies, but within 24 hours, the real impact of what I had accepted — the full charge of this office and the fact that there was very little planning or information here — hit me. That was due largely to some pretty honest briefings by the staff that was here.

I wrote a proposal immediately back to the city and county. I said, "This office exists to coordinate all emergency planning. It exists to prepare public information for people on all threats. Implied in both functions is an awful lot of research that needs to be done." So I set about almost immediately to do something other than what I had been hired to do. The primary focus of this office became more the threat of nuclear attack on Guilford County.

I feel like civil defense has somehow led to the domestication of the atom bomb. Ed Deaton, the assistant coordinator, and I have always told the truth about nuclear war planning the whole four years we've been here. We used to get requests for talks — still do — on various threats to the city: tornados, power blackouts, that kind of thing. And it was awfully hard to include nuclear war. People didn't want to hear that. Or we got laughed at. Suddenly this year people are asking for that presentation instead of the others.

Before that, to our surprise, to our anger and to our sadness, it looked like we were the only civil-defense agency out of 3,000 in this country answering questions the way we did. That was a hard experience. It was our intention to be truthful; it was not our intention to be outspoken. It would be awful if telling the truth about nuclear war planning were synonymous with being outspoken, but because there were not other people within civil defense — at least last year — joining in my comments, the effect was "outspoken."

The truth simplified is that an estimated $2.7 billion has been spent in the last 30 years in an attempt to plan for surviving nuclear war. Yet I don't know of a war plan that has been developed anywhere that offers predictable, minimal protection for the private citizen.

There are only two ways to look at it as far as I'm concerned: it is either intentional or unintentional deception of the public. If it is unintentional, then the material I have here displays ignorance. If it is intentional deception, the kindest interpretation would be that there are folks that just don't want to frighten people with the truth. I answer that in this way: it is not our job to mask a threat. It is our job to give you information on what threatens you in Greensboro and Guilford County, and on what resources are available to give you a measure of protection. Now if we cannot do that because of the nature of the threat, it is painful to say that we cannot do it, but there is no question that we should tell you that.

I have no moral objections to doing anything to give you some protection as long as we have nuclear weapons. Only I can't do it. We have worked for four years to find something — something that could give you that minimal protection. It would be a great gift to the community to save lives from the greatest threat of our time. We don't know how to do it. When it comes to saying that you are protected or can be protected, we say it is a hoax. Twenty years' worth of paperwork in our office proves it for me. In the press I would read where the federal government would call me uncooperative. They would never telephone me and say this, but I would read it in the paper. Some of our peers are also most unhappy. But I knew the action I had to take. There was just no question about it in my mind. Then I stopped thinking about losing my job because of it. If you concentrate on that it could distort what you do. It is scary to think about losing a profession you love, but it is scarier to think that you could lose a job for telling the truth.

The truth is that in an all-out nuclear attack any city of any consequence will be roasted. The Department of Defense has three categories for nuclear targets: category one is strategic military targets, category two is non-strategic military targets. Category three is population/industry. Guilford County and Forsyth County are together the largest category three conglomerate in North Carolina by virtue of population, large defense-related industries like Western Electric, and the gasoline tank farm — the largest gasoline storage facility on the East coast — out by the Greensboro airport. The Department of Defense planning scenario for us indicates we are to plan for five to seven one-megaton detonations. One megaton is equal to 80 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. If that happened, there would not be a Guilford County.

We have virtually no information on what the $4.2 billion war planning budget request means — whether they are talking about hardware or people or paper or what. But this money,

"[A] Virginia civil defense official's plan for Alexandria, a municipal suburb of Washington . . . would [have sent] 94,000 persons out of town, 19,000 of them westward across the Appalachians and the Alleghenies on a six-hour drive [about 180 miles as the crow flies] for a stay of perhaps a week in Webster Springs, West Virginia.

"Last week the Alexandria City Council unanimously rejected the plan and directed Mayor Charles E. Bentley, who agreed with the council, to so inform Governor Charles Robb.

"Besides the hoots and jeers of Alexandria officials, the Post's Mary Battiata recorded this reaction from Webster Springs's Mayor R.J. Jorishie:

"'Did you say 19,000 people? I haven't heard a word about it. I don't know how we would handle it, frankly. We've only got two grocery stores here, no civil defense shelters. Did you say 19,000? The government would have to come in here and do a hell of a job for us to be able to handle 19,000.'

"Webster Springs has a population of less than 1,000."

— Nation's Cities Weekly, May 3,1982

as I understand it, would go towards crisis relocation planning.

I will give you the official version of the system. This is not our version. Crisis relocation means that risk areas — known targets for nuclear attack — would evacuate into host areas during an increased period of international tension. Ed and I, in our initial training, could not believe our ears. We couldn't understand the definition of a period of increased international tension. We did this year hear one definition. The example was when the Russians evacuate their cities.

We would be asked to evacuate 360,000 people into six surrounding counties. Let's talk about what that assumes. It assumes, number one, that there would be warning time. The estimated need that FEMA states is three-to-10 days' warning time. Let's say that is a fact, although any reasonable person would question that. It then assumes that everyone in Guilford County has the resources and that Guilford County has the supplies to stock up for three-day supplies of food, medical supplies and so on. There are a lot of hungry people out there who can't afford to feed themselves today, much less purchase for three days, but let's say that everyone could do that. It then assumes a docile and cooperative public in an unprecedented situation. It assumes that the host county will welcome everyone into their county under unprecedented conditions.

The system for the host counties involves reception centers where you would get your "Welcome to Davidson County" newspaper supplement which has already been printed, ready to distribute. It assumes that there would be congregate care facilities for everybody. There you would wait until there is evidence or warning that a bomb is coming. Then you would dive for a fallout shelter in their county. It assumes that the conditions would be right for you to construct something called an "expedient" shelter. An expedient shelter is basically placing dirt on a building.

Other things are not covered in the system. It assumes that the entire food distribution system of our urban county can be redirected in a short period of time to the six surrounding counties. It does not take into account inclement weather. It does not take into account, in our opinion, the diseases that according to our research here would be prevalent among people. Some places don't have hospitals. We have one host county that has only three doctors, and one is moving.

When people read through this kind of stuff in civil defense literature, the first reaction is humor. It is almost impossible to look at this literature without some type of emotional reaction — anger, humor, sadness.

One part especially chokes me up. It is more tragic to me than anything else. It is a newspaper supplement, a portion of it is speaking to people in hospitals. And it says, if you can't be moved you'll still receive care and shelter. It doesn't tell the truth. Not if there is nuclear war.

Then there is a group of folks called "key workers." I would be among them. Key workers would be asked to come back into the risk area on 12-hour shifts to staff the city and county while the rest of you are out in the country. I don't mind telling you that if the whole system could ever possibly be designed, that fact alone is most disconcerting.

You could go out and devote the next 15 years to finding erroneous literature from the federal government, but I dare say you will never find anything to top the pre-prepared public information newspaper supplements. For example, the treatment advised for radiation sickness is Kaopectate and aspirin. Press releases indicate that if you receive a small or medium dose of radiation that your body will repair itself, that you will get well. The material is simply not qualified at all.

One of the suggestions for a fallout shelter listed in the newspaper supplements, which is another tragic picture for me, advises you to take the door off your home, lean it against the side of your home, dig a little hole for the rain, and cover the slant with earth and crawl in. Another section suggests that you might want to dig a hole under your car.

An example, at least in my mind, of the fantasy of this system is that we are instructed in our training that people don't panic. One publication even tells us that war makes heroes, and that people will help each other. I believe that people are basically good at heart, but I don't think we should expect them to be saints. Not them or us. Panic is not factored into the system. We are just told there won't be any panic, there won't be any looting. We were told in our training that the looting during the New York blackout was just media hype.

The official line is that we should plan for the police department and the sheriff's department to help out with the evacuation by providing security. In real life, we have studied this whole concept, this whole ridiculous idea, and it boils down in my mind to this: evacuation can be done, not easily, not without panic, not without incredible problems. The real problem is that the information is not out there for the people. You always hear from FEMA that, if you are away from the blast, then you are not blasted. Well, that's a fact, but it doesn't talk about fallout and disease and panic and starvation.

Why should it be extraordinary to tell the truth? I think that people want to hear the truth. I couldn't begin to tell you the range of groups that ask for talks. We have talked to church groups, we have talked to Jaycees, the Gibsonville Ladies Club, teach-ins at the universities — a wide variety of people, political beliefs and backgrounds. They are not taking their time to hear bull. You have to lay it all out. They have no protection. Those are hard talks, and they are scary, but they ask and we talk. And of the letters we have gotten from the community, and from around the country, all but two are supportive. That has been an incredible experience, and from that you get a lot of energy. I think it is very hard for people to be encouraging. And it takes a lot of people being encouraging when you stand up and make a threat as real as you can.

The very act of saying or suggesting to you that even if we had the warning to evacuate — look at the ethics of that. One of the state planners told me at a meeting, when I kept saying what is really out there for our people, told me my responsibility and that of other emergency workers ends at the borderline of Guilford County. I don't believe that. If we suggest to you that you evacuate to some place, then we are responsible for what happens. There is no design that we know of, and we are trained for what happens locally after a war.

There is another whole area called Continuity of Government — how federal departments will function during and after a war. We don't have much information on that. The only information we ever had was when we accidentally found out that the Department of Commerce at one time planned to bring 4,000 people here — their employees. When we found that out, one of the questions we asked was why would you bring people to a risk area? A phone call went to Raleigh and we never heard anything else about it, but we read about it. Someone asked us where we got our information about Continuity of Government planning. We told them, "the March, 1981, issue of Esquire."

The Esquire article also describes Mt. Weather, the massive shelter in Maryland where Category A personnel — high-level government officials — will be evacuated from Washington. Their facilities are a lot fancier than a door against the side of a wall, or your trench in the back yard. The question I am respectfully posing is if protection against fallout is so simple, why don't Category A personnel, including the president of the United States, just carry shovels?

We are public servants. That is a serious term, public servant. Our work is your work. Our papers are your papers. I have never seen a document that you could not have access to. The war plans are public information. You have a legal right, and I would

After washing, all fruits and vegetables should be examined for radioactivity with radiological instruments before they are eaten. Extra care should be applied to leafy vegetables such as lettuce. Canned meats are safe to eat after removing any contamination from the outside of the can. Remember — radiation harms only living tissue.

— "Emergency Public Information," Davidson County Crisis Relocation Plan for Relocated Citizens


Fuel and food supplies will be rerouted to your home area; however, this may take a day or two. Retail grocery stores will probably take several days to restock your shelves.

— “Emergency Public Information,” Crisis Relocation Plan for Guilford (less High Point), Alamance and Rockingham Counties

hope an obligation, to see the evacuation plans. You can ask to see the public information that is already pre-printed for the newspapers.

We have different committees in Guilford County for different threats. If there is an interested group in the community, I like them to work on our planning committee. For example, years ago the American Friends Service Committee sent a representative to train our radiation team. They trained that team along with the State Department of Human Resources, along with Duke Power Company. It was critical to get all different views for that plan.

I see hope. When you stand up and say, "Here's one disaster we've been unable to design a plan for," then you also say, "The information you've received in the past has been deceptive." One of the things we've done that doesn't get enough attention is that a group of people have come together to verify our findings. We have almost 30 people on this committee. It is the most well-balanced committee we have ever worked with — professionally, racially, sexually, politically. We've worked real hard on this. It got so busy around here that we had to put up bricks and boards so that the files could all be laid out for committee members and the public. All we have are two file cabinets now; the rest are bricks and boards with papers the people can look through.

I think it is important to work with people in the community on emergency planning. The more people who work together on these issues, I'm convinced, the better the results will be.

Civil defense people in this last year, thank goodness, aren't the only ones educating the public anymore. There are some fine groups out there that do — the Union of Concerned Scientists, SANE, Physicians for Social Responsibility, American Friends Service Committee. What is very discouraging is to see in our own publication, Journal of Civil Defense, where groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility or individuals like Jonathan Schell, who wrote The Fate of the Earth, are belittled.

I'd like to envision the day when people who are in private research organizations are welcomed to work with government. People can only benefit from that.